Anatta – the Opposite of Which Atta?

March 17, 2017; revised November 4,2017

We can see how the word “anatta” got translated incorrectly as “no-self”by carefully examining the different usages of the word “atta“.

  • There is “atta” which is different from “attā” (with a “long a at the end). Anatta is the opposite of  “atta” not of “attā“.
  • Anātma (which is a Sanskrit word not used by the Buddha and could be translated as “no-self”), has been misinterpreted as anatta.
  • We will discuss these in detail below.

1. In the previous post, “Sakkāya Ditthi is Personality (Me) View?“, we discussed how the term sakkāya ditthi gets incorrectly translated when the word  “atta” in a key verse in the Culavedalla Sutta is misinterpreted. Atta has two meanings:

  • one meaning is “I” or “myself” as in the first verse of “attā hi attanō nātho” (“only I can be of salvation to myself”), and that is the meaning implied in the above verse.
  • The other meaning of “atta” is “in control” or “has essence”, and the opposite of that is the anatta in Tilakkkhana: “one is helpless in this rebirth process”.
  • Those two meanings are explained in “Atta Hi Attano Natho” and in detail in, “Pāli Dictionaries – Are They Reliable?“.

2. Comprehension of a concept is very different from memorization of the definition of a word. All one needs to do is to understand what is MEANT by a word; that is saññā; see, “Sanna – What It Really Means“.

  • Atta/anatta are key Pāli words in relation to the Tilakkhana, so it is essential to get the correct saññā or the idea. In future posts, we will discuss several other critical usages of atta/anatta.
A. Atta as “a Person” versus “Essence” or “Truth”

3. Many of the misconceptions about “self” and “no-self” can be understood by taking a systematic look at how the Pāli word “atta” is used in the conventional sense and in the deeper sense (to give different meanings in different places ).

First, “atta” is pronounced “aththā” or “aththa” depending on where it is used:

  • “aththā” (pronounced with a “long a at the end”) is used to denote a person: There is no word for negation of that attā.
  • In Sinhala, it is written as “අත්තා”. That is how it appears in the Pāli Tipitaka that is written in Sinhala.
  • Even though attā has this meaning as a “person”, anatta is never used as the opposite of that attā.
  • Pronunciation: 

4. The word “atta” (pronounced with a “short a at the end”) is “the essence” or “the truth that is timeless”. The negation is “anatta“.

  • In Sinhala they are written as “අත්ථ” and “අනත්ථ”. That is how they appear in the Pāli Tipitaka that is written in Sinhala.
  • Pronunciation of the two words:
  • There is a third meaning too, which is closely related to the second meaning above:
  • The Sinhala word for atta is “artha” which means “truth” or “that which makes sense”. The opposite word in Sinhala is “anartha“, which emphasizes that what is “anartha” is not worth doing.
  • In Sinhala they are written as “අර්ථ” and “අනර්ථ”.
  • Pronunciation of the two words:

I hope you can catch the differences in the pronunciations.

5. One who is engaged in things that are “anatta” or  “anartha” will become “anātha” (helpless), the opposite of “nātha“. As was mentioned in the post “”Atta Hi Attano Natho“, “nātha” is another word for Nibbāna.

  • One who is trying to find refuge in this world will become truly helpless in the long run. On the other hand, the only refuge (“nātha“) is Nibbāna, i.e., overcoming the rebirth process.
  • Therefore, atta/anatta in Pāli can be translated to Sinhala as artha/anartha, and both usages convey the deeper meaning that convey the following ideas: “essence/no essence”, “truth/false”, “useful/useless”, etc.

6. On the other hand, the word attā” (pronounced with a “long a at the end”) is used as “me” only in the conventional sense. In order to communicate with others, we have to say things like, “one needs to defend oneself”. Here “one” exists only in the conventional sense.

  • There is no single Pāli word to express the negation of that, i.e., “not attā; If there were to be such a word that would be “non-person”. It just cannot be used that way.
  • As we see below in #11 and #12, other words to denote “me” or “self” are “mama“, “asmi” or “.

7. Therefore, the critical mistake was made by trying to translate anatta as the opposite of  “attā” with the conventional meaning of “a person” or “self”.

  • The word anatta was ALWAYS used with the deep meaning of “no truth or no essence”. Anatta is a fact indicating there is no essence or truth to be had in this world of 31 realms.
  •  attā ( in the conventional sense) is used to indicate “a person”. There is no single Pāli word to give the opposite meaning to that.

8. In relation to anatta in Tilakkhana, “atta” can also be described as “utlimate truth” (“sathya” in Sinhala and Sanskrit). That truth is anicca nature: “this world cannot bring happiness anywhere in the 31 realms”.

  • Therefore, this whole world is of anatta nature, having no “essence” and thus lacking anything is worthwhile pursuing. Therefore, if one tries to do that impossible task, one will only get exhausted, i.e., subjected to suffering.
  • Anyone who is struggling to achieve this impossible task is truly helpless.
  • All the above statements convey the meaning of the word, “anatta“; that is the saññā that one needs to absorb.

9. When one pursues “pleasurable things in this world” assuming that the nature is nicca (i.e., can lead to happiness), one will be subject to suffering or dukha and thus one is anatta (becomes helpless). This is explained in the key post, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – Wrong Interpretations“.

  • When one pursues worldly things assuming that the world is of “nicca” and “atta” nature, one tends to do dasa akusala.
  • When one realizes that the nature is anicca and anatta, one will try to stay away from dasa akusala even when pursuing worldly things. It is fairly easy to see potential problems with the three types of akusala done with the body and the four types done with speech. This is the first stage in the path (mundane path).
  • When one follows the mundane path (i.e., live a moral life), one starts to cleanse one’s mind and discard many miccā ditthi, i.e., start cleansing the mind.
  • At that stage, when one is exposed to the true meanings of anicca, dukkha, anatta, one is able to comprehend them and start on the lōkōttara (Noble) Path.
  • One seriously starts tackling the akusala done by the mind when one becomes a Sōtapanna and starts on the Noble Path. All dasa akusala are removed only at the Arahant stage. That is the “atta” or the “nātha” state; one is no longer anatta.

10. One will be subjected to much suffering (dukha) until one realizes that it is fruitless to pursue “valuable things” by engaging in dasa akusala.

  • The Noble truth of dukkha sacca (or dukkha sathya) is to see that relief from suffering comes only by rejecting dasa akusala and by engaging in “good and moral activities”, i.e., dasa kusala.
  • When one reaches Nibbāna, that is the state of nicca, sukha, atta, the opposites of anicca, dukkha, anatta that are characteristics of this world of 31 realms.
B. Discussion of the Anatta Lakkhana Sutta

11. There are several Pāli (and Sinhala) words (mama,  asmi, and ) that are used to indicate “me”, “I”, “myself”.  attā is also used to indicate “self” in the conventional sense, and “having no essence” in the deeper sense. It is important to note the difference in all those usages.

  • All these terms are in the Anatta Lakkhana Sutta, which is the key sutta that discussed the concepts of atta and the opposite, anatta in the deeper sense. Here are the key verses that are relevant to our discussion here:

“Tam kim mannāta, bhikkhave: rupam niccam vā aniccam vā ti? “Bhikkhus: is any rūpa (material entity) nicca or anicca?” or “Bhikkhus: can any rūpa be kept to one’s satisfaction or it cannot be kept to one’s satisfaction?”

– Aniccam , Bhante  “It cannot be kept to one’s satisfaction, Venerable Sir”.

Yam pan aniccam dukham vā sukham vā ti? “Will such an entity lead to suffering or happiness?” 

-Dukham, Bhante. “Suffering, Venerable Sir”.

Yaṃ pan aniccam dukham viparināma dhamman, kallam nu tam samanupassitum: ‘etan mama, ēso hamasmi, ēso mē atta ‘ti“Will such an entity that cannot be kept to one’s satisfaction, that leads to suffering,  and is a viparināma dhamma, should be considered as “myself or mine, or can taken as my atta?”

–  N’ hetum, Bhante.” “No reason to think so, Venerable Sir”.

12. Now, that last verse also clearly states what words were used by the Buddha to mean “me”, “I”, “myself”.

  • This key verse with these words is, “Etam mama, eso’ham asmi, eso  attāti“, which means, “That is me, it is mine, or my being“.
  • It is interesting to note that even today, the Sinhala word for “me” or “myself” is “mama“, and “asmai” is the sense of “me” or “mine” as in asmi mäna, which is one of the last samyōjana removed at the Arahant stage; see, “Pāli Dictionaries – Are They Reliable?“.

13. The first type of “wrong saññā” that “I am my physical body” is removed at the Sōtapanna stage by removing Sakkāya Ditthi.  The much deeper-embedded saññā of “a me” is removed only at the Arahant stage; see, “Sakkāya Ditthi is Personality (Me) View?“.

  • Anatta — on the other hand — is the correct saññā that, (i) this world of 31 realms cannot offer any “essence” or “true happiness” and, (ii) therefore, one who is struggling to find such “ultimate truth in this world” is helpless.
  • This is why a qualified person explaining Dhamma must have the patisambhidā ñāna to at least some extent, in order to figure out the correct meaning of key words in the suttas. We discussed another important example in last week’s post:Sakkāya Ditthi is Personality (Me) View?.
  • One cannot just consult a Pāli dictionary and use the meaning given there; see, “Sutta – Introduction” and  “Pāli Dictionaries – Are They Reliable?“.
  • Of course, that seems to be origin of the incorrect translation of anatta as “no-self”, i.e., choosing the wrong (conventional) meaning of “attā” (with a long “a” at the end).
C. What About Athma/Anathma?

14. The final piece of this puzzle are the words āthma/anāthma. These are Sanskrit words and NOT Pāli words. Pronunciation:

  • The confusion came when people started translating atta/anatta as āthma/anāthma in both Sanskrit and Sinhala (many Sanskrit words have been adopted as Sinhala words, which is unfortunate because that makes things more confusing).
  • In Sinhala they are written as “ආත්ම” and “අනාත්ම”.
  • In Sanskrit āthma basically means “soul”, an indestructible entity that survives death and eventually merges with the “Mahā Brahma” equivalent of the “Creator God” in Abrahamic religions. This is different from both Pāli words of atta and attā that we discussed above.
  • Obviously, atta has nothing to do with āthma. Even attā is not about an unchanging entity; it just means “a person” not “a soul”. Even those who don’t believe in rebirth think there a “attā(“I am my body”) until death.
  • The word anāthma is used only in referring to theories saying that there is no āthma, i.e., “no-soul” or “no-self”.
  • So it is quite clear that “no-self” has nothing to do with anatta.

15. Please print this post and keep as a reference. It is easy to get confused among all these different words in different languages (Pāli, Sinhala, Sanskrit). It is good to settle on exact meanings of these words.

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